Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
A few images captured lately
The siren song
“Technology is a siren song I listen to at my peril.”
When I wrote those words on April 6, 1997, I was wrestling with something I wrestle with yet: the retention of digital media. It was much simpler back then, of course, before photography, music and, to some extent, literature transformed from tangible substances of actual weight and volume to binary codes fashioned of intangible zeros and ones. It was much harder back then, too.
The reason I know I wrote those words is because of a new gadget that technology (and UPS) delivered to my door. It’s called a Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M document scanner, but I call it my little miracle worker. In short order it takes documents—in my case, old diaries—and scans them into Adobe PDF files, the worldwide standard for document preservation. It’s lightning fast, comes with Adobe Acrobat Professional software, and very reasonably priced, though it was admittedly a hard sell to my wife. In this instance I can flatly state that the sirens of technology sang me to a safe haven, and for that I am most grateful.
Back in ‘97 I was weighing the pros and cons of buying a new computer. It would be a replacement for our first, a nameless brand with a miniscule 100-megabyte hard drive. It wasn’t difficult to outgrow such a tiny drive, nor did it take more than a few years before I found myself deleting rarely-used programs in a vain attempt at postponing the inevitable. It was like trying to bail out a sinking rowboat using a cracked coffee cup, an act as futile as it was energetic. The sharks always win in the end.
The model I’d picked out as my dream machine was one of the first production Gateways sporting a speedy 200 MHz processor, 32 megabytes of SRAM, a blazing-fast 33,600-baud modem, 100 megabyte zip drive and a staggering hard drive with almost four gigabytes of storage. The cost: $2,700.
It was, I wrote, a bargain, though we could scarcely afford it.
What really prompted the move was as much technological obsolescence as an inability to complete a comprehensive backup. I had realized early on that writing with a word processor was not only faster than using pen and paper, but easier to read when printed. An added bonus was its ability to be archived digitally, though at the time the word was in its infancy. Once a three-ring binder was filled with printed pages, I’d start a new folder on the computer and archive the old one by burning it onto a floppy disk—the real McCoy, a five-and-a-quarter-inch flexible piece of plastic with a capacity of about one megabyte. And suddenly the computer balked at my ministrations, refusing all backups.
The Gateway also came with the latest in floppy technology: the three-and-a-half-inch version with half again as much storage capacity and a harder outer shell for rigidity.
Once the new computer was ours, I transferred my diaries onto the new medium and, as CDs became the archival choice, transferred them again. In most aspects I was ahead of the curve in backing up my data, and yet there were hard lessons to be learned.
And I learned them all. Corrupt data disks? Check. Crashed hard drives? Check. Backups using outmoded software that new software couldn’t decipher? Check. Forgotten passwords to encrypted data? Check! For all its marvels and wonders, technology was remarkably buggy and prone to catastrophe. Keeping your stuff—data, that is—intact was an exercise in disaster recovery.
Thanks in large part to the above-mentioned calamities plus a few shortcomings on my part, after six years of meticulous backups and upgrades I was left with what I began with more than two decades before: printed material.
Lots of printed material, it turned out. What to do with all those thousands of pages in a digital era has occupied my thinking for years, sometimes to outlandish results. Now that I’ve solved my immediate problem, or will as soon as I find the time (something no amount of technology can provide), I’m faced with a new dilemma, namely, the retention of printed paper.
It seems almost heretical to say it, but why bother? I stopped printing my columns over a year ago, opting instead for digital copies. If there’s one thing I’ve missed I can’t think of it. Certainly space around here is at a premium; even the old three-inch binder containing my first columns has become a problem in terms of storage. Spiders occasionally weave their webs within the binding and dust bunnies cavort and frolic across its cover. Plus there’s the matter of a half-dozen large plastic tubs that require babying and the concomitant worries of waterproofing and safeguarding from fire or other natural calamities.
Maybe I’m old-school, but having a hard copy of anything important has always seemed critical, if not logical. With the new ScanSnap, though, the idea of a true paperless office is at last within my grasp. If, that is, I have the stomach for it.
Backing up that data has become easier, and more affordable, than ever with external hard drives and even online storage. I’ve learned through extensive failures that redundancy is the key to success; I now have three copies of everything and will soon have four. One copy is off-site in case the house burns down. And no more using off-brand software—only that which can be read by any computer, anywhere.
In 1997 what I most feared in technology’s siren song was a slavish adherence to upgrading for the sake of newer, faster, better, and going broke in the bargain. Nor has my concerns about data protection changed: speed, space, software, affordability, reliability and functionality. Of them, affordability always managed to trump the others, usually to my chagrin. The focus should be on function. Price is negotiable and, in the long run, negligible. $2,700 for that Gateway? Suddenly, a new MacBook looks like a bargain.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Within these walls the ghosts
The houses are haunted.
They die their public deaths a thousand times over, or if lucky recede into woods to molder in leaf litter and strangler vines, their halls hushed but for the soft patter of rodents or the shiver of bats’ wings, abandoned, untended, unloved, while their previous tenants gaze forlornly out empty windows, some trapped and angry, others apathetic, and a few wandering off to skirl the heaps of autumn leaves where they accumulate beneath the junipers and pines or to meander along the dry watercourses pebbled with the bones of the hills. One venerable limestone house near a cemetery where my wife’s mother is buried developed a crack running down its center that over the years sagged the walls outward until gravity pulled it down. At last ignominiously disassembled into irregular blocks latticed atop sturdy wooden pallets, a puzzlement of stone, carted off, with only a rocky foundation marking the spot and an opening in the trees where bluebirds flittered. The late afternoon sun summoned shadows that moved of their own volition.
How different is that from a wire cage emptied of its occupant? Still a shell and still, and silent, its voices and footfalls gone the way of sorrows.
Another shell, this one sited along the foothills of northern New Mexico, where my mind takes me more than I care to admit. Lori and I were young and barely a couple but what lurked within those four dilapidated walls was older than time, and angry at my intrusion. Was it the barred calling at sunset that brought me back those miles and decades, or something else, a stanza in a Wallace Stevens poem, a snatch of song, a lonely mind’s neurons firing intermittently? Whatever the impulse I was there again, the interior air colder than ice and the warm grip of the riot shotgun suddenly inconsequential, a fearful child’s plaything, my false bravura wavering and quavering like a flickering lightbulb, dimming and pulsing and dimming again, each a lessening in intensity until at last there was nothing left but an afterimage on the retina of memory. Chased out into the bright sun and chastened to boot, my first and perhaps most memorable episode of ghost-dealing, though not the last.
Not only ruins echo with incorporeal movement. Several nights ago, an hour past midnight, I stepped onto our porch and inserted the key into the lock and heard beside me in the starlight a soft whoosh like a breath of air sighing through pines and sensed a presence just beyond the reach of sight, and pausing there with the key half enjoined with the tumblers and my other hand cradling a small flashlight weighed my options in that primitive fight-or-flee mindset fueled by pounding adrenaline, except that for the first time in my life there was only a calm acceptance of whatever was there or might be there, so that I removed the key with a slight metallic scrape only barely registering above the incessant ringing in my head and stepped back, and turning faced the direction where I had perceived the sound. Only darkness and a soft silvered light and a darker threshold between the porch railing and the skeletal arms of the mulberry. Eyes straining, ears singing, I walked to the edge of the concrete and hesitated but a moment before stepping down onto the cold yellow grass, and hearing nothing more moved on to the back of the house where the yard opened up framed by the supplicant arms of trees and the blocky mass of the hollow-eyed, doorless shed. No sound but the regular plodding thump of my heart, no motion nor dancing shadows nor any other signs of life or unlife, and yet I was not alone. For a second my thumb caressed the flashlight’s switch, more reflex than desire, before I slipped it with a flicker of annoyance into my pocket. Whatever was with me could no more be illuminated than the dark side of the moon. There was no sense of exposure or threat, only of inspection as if I were being scrutinized or studied for a reaction, and motionless I stood there with a calm assurance that whatever came next would be welcome, even necessary. Starlight like frost shimmered to my left, a fleeting glimmer more felt than seen, a subtle susurrant retraction as the unseen presence withdrew and the words not yet, not yet half-imagined, as weightless as starlight, and me rooted to the spot key in hand, hand in pocket, less distressed than disappointed somehow.
What’s left in the aftermath of such an encounter but to wait until the cold seeps into your bones while the stars cartwheel across the heavens and the universe expands into an infinity of unfathomable nothingness even as our intractable worlds retract and diminish into one man turning away to slide a key into a lock, rotate the handle and enter an empty shell of a house, and thereafter turning off the lights to lie in bed awake wondering where life had taken him, where it might lead him next, and how to redefine its boundaries. Certainly a new map is called for, with landscapes only barely conceived or dreamed of, a terrain unlike any before encountered.
And yet mornings have been grounded in this mortal plane. While driving to Frankfort a rough-legged hawk lifts from a roadside carcass with a powerful thrust of wings, a ghostly white raptor with a slight darkling band across its belly and eyes fiercely golden, and as it dips into my lane before surging skyward, a feather’s breadth from the windshield, I curse don’t don’t don’t and dance on the brakes. For a second only our eyes lock but it’s enough to peer into another reality, one more clear-eyed and focused if not more essential.
A trio of rabbits shadow the back yard like gray dumplings in the half-light of predawn, the flash of their white tails like brisk streaks of lightning bugs before bleeding away as the sun eclipses the last lingering stars. Later, a flock of turkeys parade through the field, one lone male fanning his tail, pirouetting in a circle and shivering with lust in the warm glow of a sun just topping the trees along Juganine Creek. Encompassed within the wrinkled folds of his wattles and the naked skin on his head are all the colors of the rainbow, and a promise that within these houses life carries on without hesitation or constraint. We are not ghosts yet.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Life, or something like it
When sleep becomes something to fear, don’t sleep.
One night I work on prints, a solitary light burning in the back room, coyotes yowling in the outer darkness, a great horned owl sending forth a quavering query nearby, very close, perhaps perched atop the old yard light a hard sneeze away. Beyond the walls and windows the world continues with its restless, fecund energy.
Who, who, whoooo, asks the owl.
I wish I knew.
Inside my hollow shell, myself a hollow shell, I experiment with various papers. Polar matte, a fine art cotton rag, even an expensive glossy baryta paper whose initial results proved disastrous and now, using different settings in the printer driver, reveal minute details with a crispness that stuns me. The paper’s lustrous blacks and silvery highlights appear depthless, but dragged down by the exhaustion cloying my brain I stare incomprehensibly at the print as if seeing it for the first time. I dimly recognize the location as a place we once walked with something approaching joy, though it seems a million years ago. It’s almost enough to meld the broken pieces, but not quite.
I’ve discovered it’s easy to become a recluse. Close the door. Draw the blinds. Refuse phone calls, ignore e-mails. Hide. If you need groceries, eat something else. Or don’t eat, which is also an option.
It’s doubly so when medication eats away the flesh on your face, the tips of your ears and portions of your scalp. People stare at you as if leprous, children point in fascination and horror before parents slap their hands down, and if anything is said it’s a timid stab at humor. That, too, is a reason to withdraw. As good as any, better than most.
It’s the living that’s tough, especially on the cusp of spring when the world is moving out of winter’s long shadow. Reconstructing a life is one thing but I’ve forgotten how to do the ordinary things ordinary people do. One evening with Lori gone to work I turned on the living room light and sat down in a chair to read a book. It was a good book but almost all of my reading for the past four years was done in the back room, on the floor, with Sheba beside me. After two pages of uncomfortable silence—last year’s storms fried the stereo—I snapped the book shut and walked outside to stand beneath the stars, and stood there immobile until the cold drove me back. Such a simple act seemed a betrayal and a renewal of unfathomable loss.
When I did go into public I felt like a fraud. Who was this stranger wearing my body, who laughed and discussed the latest news, who conversed without screaming or confessing to an unease around sharp objects?
One morning I accompanied my editor and a coworker to Topeka to help judge entries for the Louisiana Press Association’s annual awards. While I realize that rural newspapers everywhere lack skilled journalists, the number of stories abysmally written were stunning. Depressing, even. After judging feature stories, one of which including Sparkie the dog, a heroic American dachshund who almost sacrificed his life to defend his owners against a vicious, deadly copperhead, I moved on to something I thought would be more fun: photographs. The first feature photo entry was a grainy snapshot of a goateed man wearing camouflage, his slovenly wife and their newborn baby—also dressed in swaddling camo clothing. I was aghast that anyone would submit it for an award. It went downhill from there with only a few outstanding entries to smooth my ruffled feathers. By the end I was becoming almost surly in my written comments, my most common complaint bemoaning the inability of photographers to focus their cameras. Is it really that difficult?
We finished the afternoon judging ads, and here I really let my creative juices flow. If the ads were good, and a few were excellent, I rhapsodized with superlatives. If they were bad, I let them know in no uncertain terms—“putrid” was how I described one color used in a wine ad. (“Can he do that?” my coworker asked.) The final entry of the day was a Summer Fun Sale! from a major importer of Chinese goods that rarely bothers to advertise unless when trying to annihilate any local competition. Below the miniscule images of cheap outdoor recreational supplies were prices blocked off inside little flip-flop sandals. “I liked the sandals,” I wrote, “and detested everything else.” I probably won’t be invited back.
I’m not in a humorous mood or even one approaching interest in anything other than looking out the window at the world going past, the skeins of geese heading north, the flocks of robins skirling through the yard, a sharp-shinned hawk in the tree out front as dusk settles down, an unlikely shape where none had been before, a squirrel madly planting a walnut out back by the stub of the hackberry. For a moment I imagine a towering tree shading that empty quarter and then realize I’ll be dead long before it would reach any size, if indeed it manages to sprout.
It’s hard to keep a life on hold when life is so insistent. A thousand blackbirds make landfall in the field. Almost idly, as if struggling to recall a reason for doing so, I reach down and pick up the Swarovski’s and slipping off the end caps lift them to my eyes. Mostly starlings with one or two redwings and a lone brown-headed cowbird, a shifting weave of dark motion eclipsing the stunted grass and the rain-damp furrows. The ground puddled and wet beneath low clouds scudding on a stiff south wind. From my vantage I see green shoots of grass and weeds poking through the chestnut soil, scarlet buds on the maples, a pair of yellow-shafted flickers preening in the redbud, bluebirds bringing nesting materials to their box. Lori’s garden lies dark and damp, awaiting seeds and the sun’s warmth. Let rabbits be our bounty.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
What remains in the silence
Nature and terrain decide placement: Behind the house in a failed garden overgrown with every manner of sapling, within a tiny clearing induced by an old carpet laid down years ago to prevent the growth of weeds, beneath a thin layer of grass mantled with a skiff of snow crisscrossed by the indecipherable puzzle of rabbit tracks. Ten feet from Mr. Bun’s rugged cairn.
Twelve degrees of misery and an icy north breeze flay our exposed skin.
The shovel rebounds, skitters off the underlying weave. I place the blade point down and hop onto the knurled trailing edge, my not-inconsiderable weight flexing the fiberglass shaft, and for a moment teeter there, an ungainly scarecrow, conjoined to the frozen earth by a thin sliver of cold steel. And topple with no undue effect.
Alternate tactic, shovel as spear. Raised high, stabbed downward, blunted by the unseen carpet, a shock wave ripping through my hands and rolling up my arms into my shoulders. Rebuffed, I use the blade as probe until I locate an edge. After prying up a small lip, I hook the exposed carpet with the shovel’s shank and yank until it rips free. The moldy material peels back like layers of an onion, exposing the rich brown Kansas soil.
The blade bites deep, removes the top crust. A hole begins to form. I switch to a posthole digger and repeatedly slam it into the wet ground, scissoring out thick meaty clumps of clay.
“How deep do you have to go?” Lori asks.
There are so many endings to a story such as this, or placements we may consider as endings, though most ends are really beginnings of another sort. As I’m smoothing the mound we have together made, Lori brings two small flat stones and sets them on top. One for her, one for me; more to follow, a cairn to graze the clouds. We say our farewells and turning begin the long walk back to an empty and silent house.
Another ending: I drive into the yard late at night, headlights flooding the backdrop of the thicket and a small encrusted hummock of mud clods and two sentinel stones, and call out “Sheba, I’m home!” But she is not. Sheba is gone, and I am undone.
Each time I walk into my office and find the cage missing, or listen for the soft pad of footfalls, that, too, is an ending.
Or in the mornings when I rise groggy from sleep, start the coffee and reach for a stalk of broccoli before realizing there is no longer a need, a betrayal of the want still vibrantly extant—an ending.
But to this story there is only one beginning, that of a small black-faced Angora rabbit standing in her cage, paws hooked to the metal grid, studying me with lustrous velvet eyes, and how I crossed the room and knelt to unlatch the door and take her into my arms. How she studied me. How she chose me.
She chose me. The thought lingers, raising a host of unanswerable questions concerning the mystical bond that occasionally forms between animal and man. Not pets, nor even companion animals, though that designation hits closer to the mark. Closer than most family members, our familiars, as essential to us as we are to them. Parts of a whole. Completion.
Sheba, as we named her, was with us for four years and four months. In that short time I grew closer to her than to anyone other than my wife, to the point where I hated to even leave the house, knowing how she would miss me. And I her. The few times I left for week-long trips were excruciating, though I tried masking it from others. Lori alone knew that depth of anguish and allowed me the freedom to express it privately between us.
Later, she said, “You were with Sheba more than me the past few years.” It’s true, and it wasn’t enough.
The last night she was with us Sheba was having difficulty breathing, but moved between us as if saying goodbye, her wet tongue licking our fingers, and I thought of the things we always meant to do and never got around to doing, the things we tried so hard to convey, even at the last when the time for words was past and there were only the slow unfolding moments, and then even the moments were gone.
And here is one last ending that will also serve as a beginning: On the morning we buried Sheba, a small gray cottontail stepped from the brush pile and stood watching the house. Its tiny ears were erect, one cocked backwards and the other toward the man staring out the window, every inch of its body alert, tense, almost expectant. And as the man watched, a second rabbit appeared. The two studied each other across a short span as if meeting for the first time, and after a very long spell of making no effort to move closer finally crossed the space with cautious hops and touched noses. And the man, in the way humans are prone to look beyond the ordinary, reached out a hesitant finger and touched the window pane, and in a cracked voice said, “Sheba. Mr. Bun.”
They were there all day, usually by the brush pile, once by the garden. One chased the other around the broken stub of the hackberry, past the brush pile and behind the shed to emerge in gray streaks of motion beneath the camper. Together they cropped the short dry grass or explored the compost heap, or, resting in a patch of warm sunlight sheltered from the wind, looked out over the yard with what can only be understood as utter contentment.
That evening, as dusk filtered the fading light into a gray sodden blanket and the horizon bled fire, the two rabbits blended into the shadows and were gone. Nor have they returned, though the man waiting by the window watches and watches, and watches some more.